Caught in the Undertow

I grew up on Long Island.  Although I have lived on the west coast of Florida, which boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches for the past 20 years, Jones Beach will always be the most beautiful beach to me because it is home.

If I close my eyes I can feel the gritty sand in my toes and hear the seagulls and the waves crashing to the shore. As a little kid I would play on the shore line, building sandcastles and jumping over the remainder of the breaker waves as they rolled up towards the beach.  As I got older I became more adventurous and learned how to ride the waves in as they broke.

It is an exhilarating feeling to catch a good wave at precisely the right moment and get a nice clean ride in. But occasionally you can be blindsided by a wave and get pummeled by it because you weren’t expecting it. Sometimes in an attempt to ride a wave you can jump in at the wrong time resulting in being creamed by the force of the current. This is a scary experience.  In a matter of seconds you are being spun uncontrollably and it is incredibly difficult to find your bearings. It feels like the ocean is sucking you downward. If you are not accustomed to navigating the unpredictable activity of an undertow it is easy to panic.  I have been caught in some crazy waves that in the moment have made me wonder if I would survive.

Fortunately like most kids who are raised by the beach, I was taught at a young age how to handle such situations and even though it could be frightening I knew that if I followed some simple rules of survival the wave would eventually subside and I would once again rise to the surface and be able to breathe.

The first rule was HOLD YOUR BREATH AND DON’T PANIC.  The duration of even a huge ocean wave is shorter than the amount of time you can hold your breath. The tendency when we panic is to gasp for breath but if when the wave hits you just hold your breath and don’t panic in time the waters will smooth out and the air in your body will cause you to rise to the surface.

The second rule was DON’T FIGHT IT – GO WITH THE FLOW. Our natural reaction when we’re being knocked around and feel out of control is to fight to regain our footing but this is actually counterproductive when trying to react to a wave. All you will end up doing is completely exhausting yourself.  Instead the trick is to relax your body and let yourself go with it until the wave passes.  The force of the wave is far stronger than you are and fighting against it is futile. If you can calmly wait it out you will soon be released, your feet will find the ground and you will be able to push up to the surface and find your bearings. This is easier said than done when you are being tossed about by the waves!

Some kids (and grown-ups for that matter) having been pummeled by a wave once decided it was not worth the risk and do not engage in the joy of riding the waves. They didn’t learn the survival tips for managing the undertow and so they settle for just playing in the shallow breakers. They are missing out on the exhilaration of swimming in the ocean.  It is an incredible feeling to be carried by the rise and fall of the ocean swells and something thrilling about playing in the vastness of the sea.

Life is often like this. A series of waves, some invigorating and awe-inspiring and others downright frightening and disorienting. But it shouldn’t stop us from engaging. If we want to experience all the joy and wonder that this life has to offer we need to pack up our coping skills and dive in deep.

crashing waves, panic, depression, coping, fear
This is not me – but what a great picture!
photo credit
Young girl in the waves, Jones Beach, New York. July 1951, by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
http://www.entertaininghouse.com

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Instead of playing in the shallow breakers I am ready to dive in.  This is an unedited, first attempt excerpt from a short book I am writing. Stay tuned!

If you are in the swirl of an undertow please know that this too shall pass.  Hold your breath (or since you are not really in the ocean – take some deep breaths) ~ don’t panic.  Before you know it you will be in smooth waters once again. 

He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. ~ Psalm 107:29